Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ghosts, Graveyards, and the Luxury of Time

A few days ago Budza and I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It’s the riff on Kipling’s classic set in a graveyard, with the Mowgli role given to one Nobody Owens, and various ghosts and hellhounds (and one very classy vampire) standing in for Bagheera, Kaa, Baloo, and the rest. It won the Newbery Award this past January and, in August, the Hugo. It’s hands down, the best story I have read aloud to Budza since we moved from picture books to chapter books and on to true novels--and he and I have read a lot of splendid books. But none this fully realized and compelling, ambitious and just plain good. The suspense was skillful, the plot crisis toward the end terrifying, the denouement satisfying, and the ending perfect and moving. I’ll say nothing more. Go read it.

I wonder how much of the book’s fineness comes from the fact Gaiman had the luxury and leisure to work on the story off and on for 22 years. It was in the mid 1980s when he spied a toddler riding a tricycle in a graveyard, and only years later that the story of Bod Owens was completed. That doesn’t happen much in children’s book publishing any more. Of course, Gaiman had what every writer would like to have--income from a lot of other finished projects and a plenty of other irons in the fire--but the fact remains that publishing is increasingly dependent upon series, and one book a season, please, and one just like the last one, thank you very much. And if you die in harness churning them out, we’ll hire someone else to keep it going.

The idea that a writer could take his time and allow the book to take root and grow is really an exception, if not an anathema. Would Tolkien be given the leisure to write his four books about Middle Earth in this day and age? He began The Hobbit in 1925 and finished the last chapter of Return of the King in 1950.

Everything is shorter, now, and faster. We are getting our stories every few seconds, 147 characters at a time. The days when editors and publishers could afford to wait for a book to be ready in the fullness of time are gone forever. But I can’t help thinking what if. What if writers had the leisure to take as long as the story needed rather than rush to deliver them, so they could be hurried past the copyeditor with a wink and whisked into stores? What if we all had the luxury of time?

Those are books I’d like to read.

[illustration of Mowgli by John Lockwood Kipling from The Second Jungle Book, 1895. Doesn't it look like a headstone?]


  1. I am encouraged, since I have a novel I've been writing off and on for ten years. It would be nice to think it was just taking root and waiting to become.